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Steve Jobs, Apple and the Connectivity Explosion

By Roger Conrad on October 7, 2011

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Few developments in human history have been as transforming as the ongoing revolution in global connectivity. In just a few short years, the Internet has become the world’s primary method of information retrieval and sharing, entertainment and even communications. Wireless phones are now easily as ubiquitous in the streets of Mumbai or Jakarta as they are in London and New York, perhaps more so.

The revolution has transformed industries, economies and governments. New Internet-based rivals have suddenly replaced industries and companies that had thrived for decades. Even countries with strong traditions of conformity and state control over daily lives such as China and Iran are being shaken as citizens tap into the colossal and growing flood of data now passed back and forth by the world’s citizens.

It’s easy to get hyperbolic about this kind of megatrend, particularly since growth has proven it can transcend even the worst economic debacle. People proved in 2008 they’ll give up a lot of things in tough times, but their wireless and Internet devices aren’t among them. And they’re proving it again now, as Americans and others pull in their horns against the possibility of a new recession caused by European credit woes.

By any standard, however, the rise of Internet communications–particularly over wireless devices–constitutes a revolution that’s transforming human societies of all stripes. And it shows no signs of slowing down, regardless of economic pressures or the desire of governments to maintain control.

It’s also fair to say that few companies did more for the growth of Internet and wireless connectivity than Apple Inc (NSDQ: AAPL), and by extension its now departed founder Steven Jobs. To be sure, Apple still has plenty of rivals. And with the untimely demise of Mr. Jobs its future looks somewhat less certain.

At least for now, however, the company does have what are widely regarded as the highest quality products on the market, from the wireless computer iPhone to the iPad and iMac. In a word, they’ve made the Internet and wireless communications fun–and made a lot of money in the process. Most important, they’ve set a standard for technology that’s sure to promote more innovation and thereby further the connectivity revolution.

Apple, of course, doesn’t pay a dividend and so is somewhat beyond the scope of what I cover in Utility Forecaster, as well as Canadian Edge, MLP Profits and the new Australian Edge. But there are plenty of companies in my coverage universes that have benefitted richly from Apple’s innovation. And they’ll continue to reap rich rewards as the connectivity revolution literally reshapes the world.

Two that leap to mind are the US wireless communications giants that currently sell Apple’s iPhone, AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ). At this point Apple products are more integral to AT&T’s operations than they are to Verizon’s, by virtue of the fact that Ma Bell has sold them for longer. But the growth of wireless communications is equally important to both.

Both companies currently face some regulatory challenges. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) three Democratic members are still pushing for tighter regulation of Internet services, which Verizon has filed suit against in the US Court of Appeals of the DC Circuit. Meanwhile, the Obama Dept of Justice is suing to block AT&T’s attempt to buy Deutsche Telekom’s (Germany: DTE, OTC: DTEGY) T-Mobile USA, a deal the FCC has yet to rule on.

At this point either effort could fail. But even if so, major regulatory initiatives by either the DoJ or FCC face a very hostile US Congress. Meanwhile, each continues to add business, some of it ironically at the expense of T-Mobile USA, as Deutsche Telekom is now devoting as little cash to the enterprise as possible.

Unfortunately, Sprint Nextel’s (NYSE: S) announcement this week that it will buy 30.5 million Apple iPhones over four years may wind up as its final coupe de grâce. Like T-Mobile, the company has been losing valuable contract customers in droves, forcing it to rely ever-more on low margin pre-paid business. And Sprint’s technology gap with AT&T and Verizon is growing daily, as it can only afford a fraction of the $5 billion each of the giants spends quarterly on their networks.

The iPhone purchase will almost surely increase the appeal of Sprint’s service offerings, particularly coupled with its current unlimited data option. However, it will also entail a hefty capital commitment that will be tough for the junk-rated company to afford, including a reversal of network strategy from WiMax to so-called long-term evolution, or LTE. That announcement set off a plunge in the share price of the company’s WiMax broadband partner Clearwire Corp (NSDQ: CLWR), to which Sprint still has numerous financial and operating commitments.

The iPhone will also further compress Sprint’s already challenged profit margins. Finally, there are real questions about whether the number three wireless company’s network can accommodate these devices smoothly, given its financial challenges, which include some $2.25 billion in debt coming due in March.

Yield to maturity (YTM) on those notes is still 5.6 percent, versus a YTM of 0.84 percent on Verizon notes coming due the same time. Sprint’s five-year debt, meanwhile, has a YTM of 9.4 percent. The upshot: If it refinances that $2.25 billion anytime soon, the company is going to have to pay an arm and a leg. And things will get a lot worse in a big hurry if credit conditions for corporations tighten meaningfully.

My point is, iPhone or no, I wouldn’t advise anyone to touch Sprint’s stock or bonds with a 10-foot pole. Industry sales, however, will continue to grow in the US, and that’s very good news for the companies that are solvent and strong, namely AT&T and Verizon.

One more Apple beneficiary in the communications world deserves mention: Telefonica (NYSE: TEF). This company has been thriving outside its original European home but is struggling as a stock, as investors focus on the turmoil on the Continent.

The company is subject to often-erratic European communications regulation. This week the European Union proposed cutting companies’ profit from copper networks on the belief that will encourage investment in broadband. That doesn’t square with any economics I’ve ever heard of, as in effect it takes dollars away from the companies that are doing the investing.

European copper, however, has long since ceased to be Telefonica’s bread and butter. In fact, the company also has only limited exposure to European sovereign debt worries and economic weakness. That’s because it’s investing prolifically in wireless and broadband networks elsewhere in the world, particularly in Latin America.

Speculation is currently raging that the company will cut its 10 percent-plus dividend, with one analyst going so far as to call a reduction “inevitable.” Management, however, maintains that’s false and, in any case, it’s hard to argue the current yield isn’t already pricing in a cut.

A positive surprise in that regard could mean considerable upside for the share price, which earlier this year held a range in the upper 20s. That was when the euro was roughly 8 percent higher versus the US dollar than it is now. But this company has all it takes to grow rapidly in coming years as the connectivity revolution continues to unfold.

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